this summer i wrote a feature on dj schools old and new for dj mag. as part of it, i was asked to speak to someone who really knows their shit when it comes to making electronic music. of course, my first thought was paul woolford – you only need listen to one of his records to see that he is a man with an acute ear for production. rich textures, deft flourishes and subtle sound designs all replace any painfully du jour motifs in his work for planet e, cocoon and of course his own label, intimacy, and as such the man has a lot of knowledge to impart.
and he kindly did, so much so i thought it a shame not to share our full exchange, so here it comes…
initially, what are your thoughts on the rise of djing/producing as an educational discipline? is production something that can and should be taught on courses and at university do you think?
as an educational discipline, i think it’s great that people now have a structured way of learning how to produce and engineer music. furthermore, most of these learning environments at schools, colleges and places such as s.a.e. are very practical, hands-on studios and this kind of direct experience is key to the development of any participant’s skills. overall this is a fantastic thing that, by and large, democratizes the process of learning, where once you had to slowly work your way up from the bottom by finding a job as a tea-boy at some large studio complex, spending 2 years doing that before they upgrade you to a tape-op.
these kind of positions were very hard to find, and although today’s music production courses have liberated the availability to learn, the irony is that the skill-sets of each approach are very different due to technological advancements. for example, you wouldn’t necessarily learn how to operate a studer 1/4″ tape machine on a standard music production course today, however there was a time where everything was recorded on to tape. likewise, back in the day you wouldn’t have learnt how to make a full production in a piece of software such as ableton so in the words of lcd soundsystem “there’s advantages to both”.
i understand you are self taught… what benefits do you think that has over one of these courses?
yes i am self-taught, and for me this has been of optimum importance because my sole motivating factor has been how things sound, the spirit of the production, and not wether they are sonically “correct”. this is something that makes a huge difference to dance music, although in other forms of music it is less useful – so for example it would be hard to make a modern country & western record that sounds great by badly recording the vocal, whereas in so many dance records these kind of quality issues can often be the things that give us a raw vibe, something that draws us in and charms us by way of the d.i.y ethos that pervades dance music.
increasingly we are seeing that the march of students graduating from production courses has meant that the general standard of production has improved over the years across dance music, but with this it would appear that in the rush to release music and to make a career, there are so many records emerging that are sonically “correct” (for want of a better expression), but redundant in terms of ideas, that the flooding of the market means the genuinely good ideas are getting missed.
recently i read a very harsh review on a website of a talented young up-and-coming uk producer’s new 12″. the record is a great example of being very well-engineered, everything was in the right place, an abundance of sonic detail and plenty of musicality. the reviewer basically said that it was all good, in fact, better than good, but that it felt bland. there was an outcry on the comments underneath from the public, with nearly all in support of the producer and saying what a great record this was. now, after repeatedly swallowing the information in the review, i realised that the absence of something raw somewhere within the production was probably the deciding factor in the reviewer finding the material bland. i know as a dj that when i spend 8 hours going through new promo material, nearly everything sonically is coming from a very similar place. the records i buy are sometimes alarmingly lo-fi – for example the works of theo parrish, moodyman, (and especially in their early days) can be so raw sounding, but the point of all this is that the balance of spirit and production is the common factor in all the best records. they charm you. some of today’s producers are regularly making their records with deliberate murky elements within the mixes, in techno look at the work of ben klock and especially belgium’s peter van hoesen who creates works of art from surface noise. the power of these records and the way they sound is simply not something that can be taught, it is about spirit.
would you agree the technology/software aspect has made production into a teachable science, as it were? has the technical aspect of the art meant that there is more to teach and learn within an educational structure? i imagine such courses were much less popular before logic, ableton and so on…
i agree that the software aspect has definitely made production a teachable science, and i would also say that the ease of these programs to learn has also been a key factor in the popularity of the courses and the uptake in them. of course there have always been sound engineering degrees, but many years ago before today’s courses, you could only do them at certain locations. one such example of a producer who studied at salford school of sound recording is brian dougans, one half of future sound of london, and these days, amorphous androgynous. this was the old-school approach i spoke of earlier so it is very different to what you would learn today. the sheer sonic richness in his music speaks for itself.
do you think it makes sense degree-level production courses are now in operation at places like leeds met? i’m no producer but it seems cynical; seems to bastardise the art a little…
|- this isn’t paul’s but i saw it in berlin and have been looking for an excuse to post -|
i think that it’s definitely a positive thing that you can easily study for a degree in music production. i am all for music being a universal thing, my view is of inclusive, i am certainly no elitist, although i am very specific and particular about what i seek personally in music. the view of some that this could be a cynical approach is quite a reductive argument i feel, in that for many, yes it is cynical, and here i am talking of those who purely want to make money from music with that as the primary motivation, but for others, the skills you would aquire on such a degree course are a springboard to unlocking further potential and furthermore for a still smaller number, with the eventual aim of becoming a recording artist in the true sense of the word.
where do you stand on the argument that production is about an artist expressing themselves vs it being a teachable science? isn’t the latter taking something out of the process? if you go on a course you can sidestep years of loving music, being involved, being influenced and just get taught how to make a track-by-numbers, then bam… unleash it to beatport et voila…
personally i feel that production is actually a process, you are speaking of artistry when you mention an artist expressing themselves. production to me is the actual process as well as the management of the process. the expression comes from the artist inside an individual. so for example, when rick rubin produces a band or artist, he spends so much time observing, listening, and understanding the artist, without even sitting at the console – he has a very comfortable chair and basically lays down in the studio – this is still production, but on a wider scale. his intention is to bring out the very best in the artist psychologically so that when it does come to the actual recording stage, the recordings will be at their optimum level-best. this is where the language has become skewed over the years because many people who come from studying may be able to make a track with the bass, mids, vocals, highs in the right place, but this is basically modern enginering
i feel that the point being made in your question is that there is a lack of true artistry within dance music in the light of things becoming wholly generic. modern technology has opened so many doors but it’s also true that it has made things very samey in some aspects depending on the inquisitiveness of the user. i think as you say, if you take one of these courses and then sidestep all the years of developing your own relationship with music then that is definitely taking something out, and it will show in the end result, there is no substitute for experience and everything you absorb over the years as well as your background and life experience influences your music sometimes subtly, at other times transparently. for those with little imagination and who are stepping in to dance music to make money or for lifestyle reasons, they are contributing to the rise of the generic. one of the problems in dance music is that people spend too much time looking at what others are doing and take the cues there rather than questioning if the way they proceed is really correct for themselves. this is particularly true in the dj world but this is another subject.
do you think production can actually be taught at university level? isn’t that intellectualising it too much and missing the point? are there hard and fast rules everyone can benefit from or should producing be more about your own journey?
i think there are definitely some hard and fast rules, but these are very specific engineering things, about bass placement and not muddying the lower and lower-mid frequencies. learning this stuff academically is a very definitive way of absorbing it. you learn in different ways by being self-taught. as much as i prefer to listen to music made from people at the vanguard of scenes and movements, most people do not, and it would be selfish for me to think everything should be done the way that i like it to be done. and of course, what you are saying is true in that for most of the people who’s music i admire, you just cannot teach it, it comes from the artist. i think there are good elements of both learning your own way and taking things from the “proper channels” shall we say (another expression that doesn’t quite sit comfortably).
now, going onto something that has been a corner-stone of dance music’s creative development over the years; the mistake. going back to the time when phuture and pierre’s batteries were running down on their 303 leading them to make ‘acid trax’, the mistake has been something that has repeatedly changed dance music time and time again. these mistakes are statistically far less-likely to happen if you have studied strictly by the book, so there is a huge case for treading your own path.
do you think there are any common floors in productions today? anything specific which seems lacking/not up to scratch across the board in the music you listen to/get sent?
from the perspective of somebody who is sent a stack of fresh music daily, i’d say the most common flaw is the derivative/generic sound of things. this is why when somebody who has a genuinely original take on things rapidly emerges – good examples from recent times would be joy orbison, floating points and james blake. all three of these artists have a different and very musical contribution to make and have shown that there are always new directions for those with the desire to take them. and artists is exactly what they are. naming no names, you can clearly make the distinction between those that are firing out fodder to drive a dj career and those who are more interesting and relevant and i think we need more artists and less button pushers.